What ‘Incognito Mode’ Can And Can’t Do To Protect Your Data

What ‘Incognito Mode’ Can And Can’t Do To Protect Your Data
Screenshot: Brendan Hesse

Do you know what Chrome’s Incognito mode does with your browser’s data? If not, it’s worth a refresher, because it seems some users have been operating under the wrong impression.

Google is being sued for $US5 ($7) billion over “intentionally deceiving users” into believing their browsing data was off-limits while using Incognito mode. While I’m all for questioning Google’s privacy policies, it’s hard to see Google losing this one, since Chrome clearly explains how Incognito mode works each time you open an incognito tab.

No matter what happens with the lawsuit, it’s important to know what Chrome’s incognito mode—and similar options in other browsers—actually does, and how it should (and shouldn’t) be used.

What incognito and private browsing modes actually do

Incognito mode simply prevents your browsing history from being saved on your device and in your personal Google account. This includes searches, sites visited and cookies (though downloads and bookmarked sites will still show up). Basically, if others have access to your device or account, they won’t be able to see what you did while in Incognito mode.

Those same limitations apply to private browsing modes on other browsers like Firefox and Edge. It’s best to treat Incognito mode/private browsing as little more than a pause button on your browsing history. These modes do not make you anonymous or hide your personal information when you log into websites, nor do they prevent Google, your internet provider, employers, advertisers or anyone else from seeing or collecting data about what you’re up to. This is all clearly stated when you open a new incognito tab.

Since private browsing modes often disable browser add-ons by default, including those that block traffic or add extra layers of privacy, it can be easier for websites and companies to track certain data if you are using incognito mode. Similarly, if you actually log into a website like, say, Instagram while in Incognito Mode, the site will be able to see what you’re doing and all the usual account activity will be visible to other users even after you’ve closed the incognito tab.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to keep your browsing history hidden from the people who use the same devices or Google account as you, use incognito mode. If you’re trying to keep your traffic anonymous and your data out of the hands of companies, you need to do a lot more.

How to keep your browsing data private

Relying on incognito mode and private browsing tabs isn’t much of a data-security strategy—though I won’t deny they can be a small part of one when used correctly. To that end, we have guides covering the best browsers for blocking ads, third-party trackers and data privacy—though some of these will require configuring optional tracker-blocking settings or installing third-party add-ons.

Other tools, like a reliable VPN, will obfuscate your IP address and traffic (at least most of the time), while DNS over HTTPS services encrypt your traffic and make it harder for outsiders to see what websites you’re accessing.

Lastly, we also have guides on controlling what information companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook can share with others; limiting how much information your devices can share; and replacing apps that collect data regardless of your browser-level security settings.

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